Grasslands of Merakai – An unbalanced campaign

May 4, 2011
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Balance has been a hot topic in RPG design from the origins to the modern day. Its easy to find examples. Tweaking classes to make certain one is not more powerful than the next. Tweaking feats, skills, and other abilities to ascertain the sets available to each prototype character are matched. Everyone seems to want balance except when they don’t. Balance really isn’t all that necessary.

Around the time I launched the Grasslands of Merakai campaign, I was heavily interested in ecology, ecosystems and natural cycles. The research and knowledge had a significant impact on how I approached the campaign. Just as influential were the games I had been playing within. Either the GM was heavy handed in feeding the party only encounters they could overcome or he’d generate implausible situations with the caveat that no players would die.

Balance is nice on paper but its just not natural. Ecosystems generally trend toward equilibrium but rarely do they stay at the balance point for long. For example, take coyotes and rabbits. As the rabbit population increases, the coyote population will as well due to the available prey. When disease wipes out most of the rabbits, the coyotes starve and have fewer offspring. With fewer predators, the rabbit population begins to increase again. The cycle starts all over.

I’ve never been a fan of the rule where you should use monsters X, Y, and Z when the party level is generally A, B and C. I understand the benefit and I’ve made use of such balancing techniques quite often. If you succumb to the approach, the system has just rail roaded you into making choices from a limited pool. The majority of quality campaigns follow the balance is normal model. You need not follow the balanced approach. Is there some meta god rolling around scooting all the creatures not within a certain hit dice range away from the party?

The original version of the Grasslands of Merakai was a knee-jerk response to balance and other game master’s unwritten rules of no character death. By design, it was brutal, chaotic and very deadly. No creature was off the table. Creature hit dice were not a meaningful determinant for encounter feasibility.

The only rule I had was the party been given a chance to avoid dying. The window of chance was often very limited. Choose to run immediately, or be prepared to die or alternatively make the choice during an encounter to escape due to some distraction. Rarely were player characters not given a chance to escape. If they were surprised and had no obvious means of escape, I’d try to work a chance into the encounter. I was evil and didn’t make the choice readily apparent.

Characters had to make difficult choices. Adventuring is not for the meek. Personally, I don’t feel adventurers should plan on long lives. If anyone could do it, why would adventurers exist at all?

The body count was staggering. Players often were busy rolling up a new PC as the campaign was rolling along to the next element. Some players died more than once per session. Based on my recollection, not a single player escaped death over the course of the entire campaign. Not a single player ever refused to play in the campaign even after I’d killed them repeatedly. For some it was frustrating but they quickly learned how the campaign was designed.

Would I run such a campaign today? If I were in a similar situation to when it originally occurred, yes I would. Playing several times a week with a dedicated group of 5-6 players makes such experiments easier. Since I’m not, I probably wouldn’t. Most of the game masters I play under today are more realistic and allow the possibility for death. Occasionally, someone dies.

Deadly should be a tool at the game master’s disposal. If the players are overly confident and cocky, toss something completely unbalanced at them. Let the body count grow but give them an out. Everyone needs to be shocked back into the realization they are not the most powerful force alive on occasion. If death is onerous to the majority of the group, the approach will alienate the players.

Use at your own risk.

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